With all the Holiday bustle, I was a little late to the game in seeing the latest Star Wars film. I was actually the last one of the Geeks to see it. I purchased my tickets ten days after release and only saw the film about four hours ahead of our scheduled podcast review. Truth be told, I wasn't very excited. Had it not been for the podcast review, I probably would have waited a few more weeks before watching it in theaters.
I'm glad I didn't wait. This film was significantly better than I expected. I do have some gripes that I'll share with you in the spoilers section. But those gripes center largely around minor continuity issues and seemingly arbitrary script-writing choices. Overall, I enjoyed it. It felt like an appropriate end to the sequel trilogy and the overarching Skywalker saga.
If you've listened to our previous podcasts, it will come as no surprise that I was ambivalent about The Force Awakens and even less impressed with The Last Jedi. Despite being within the bounds of a Star Wars story, I felt like I was missing that gritty, western, space opera feel of the earlier Lucas films. Up to this point, the saving grace for this trilogy came by way of callbacks to earlier films and continuity in character casting. It offered just enough nostalgic glimmer to keep me watching, but not enough to get me fully invested.
I don't mean to imply that this latest installment somehow transformed the films into the Lucas style trilogy that I was hoping for in the beginning. I doubt that any amount of Abrams' style or Disney magic sprinkled into the final episode could have made me see it that way. But in retrospect, that's not necessarily a bad thing. For nearly two decades, virtually all Star Wars stories came by way of storytellers other than Lucas. And some of them are quite adept at telling Star Wars stories in their own style (e.g. Timothy Zahn, Matthew Stover, James Luceno, Karen Traviss).
Having that moment of self-realization helped me to appreciate this film for what it is: a story told by someone else. Someone with different ideas about what makes the Star Wars universe engaging and memorable; but someone who still attempts to pay homage to Lucas' original vision. In my opinion, Abrams and the Lucasfilm team redeemed the trilogy with this final installment.
A part of me does wish it had been a bit longer. In spite of me poking fun at the run time prior to release, Abrams could have made ample use of another 20 to 30 minutes of screen time. He had a lot of loose ends to tie up in The Rise of Skywalker - partly of someone else's creation - and I think his own storytelling suffered somewhat as a result. It's not that it wasn't a cohesive story, but it did seem like we were tossed into a hyperspace lane towards story completion at a few points. It makes me curious what he cut prior to the theatrical release that reduced the run time by 13 minutes. Perhaps we'll find the answer to that question in bonus features from the Blu-Ray or Disney+ release.
Whatever the case may be, I still found this film to be enjoyable - far more than the previous two installments. I believe The Rise of Skywalker brings a divisive trilogy and the overarching Skywalker saga to a satisfying end.
[*** Warning: The remainder of this review contains spoilers ***]
With the spoiler-free introduction out of the way, I can't think of a better to place to start than discussing some of the ways this trilogy paid homage to the original films. As many fans of the franchise have noted, there are an almost precarious amount of original trilogy themes echoed in the sequel trilogy.
A hero(ine) that is naturally force sensitive but knows nothing about their abilities - check. A reluctant, old Jedi that must take on the task of training that hero(ine) - check. A skilled pilot and former smuggler with a penchant for reckless heroism - check. An evil, dark Force wielder that threatens the entire galaxy - check. A conflicted dark side apprentice, sporting a distinctive helmet and black garb - check. Droids that serve as both comic relief and critical plot devices - check. Not just one, but two sets of super weapons that have the power to destroy entire planets in a matter of minutes - check. A surprise reveal that the hero(ine) is a direct descendant of a bad guy - check. On top of all that, we get to see Leia, Luke, Han, Chewie, Lando, C3PO, R2-D2, the Millennium Falcon, Star Destroyers, stormtroopers...
Okay, okay. I wouldn't blame you if you said this felt as much like a reboot as a sequel trilogy. However, The Rise of Skywalker lends some sensibility to all that seemingly repetitive script-writing. The reintroduction of Darth Sidious, for all its divisiveness within the fandom, makes for a perfect excuse. After all, it was Sidious' obsession with "unlimited power" that gave birth to this conflict in the first place.
It was he that envisioned the planet-destroying weapons, the armada of massive ships, the army of dispensable fighters and stormtroopers, and the eventual rebirth of a Sith Empire. Even after monumental losses, he never gave up on that twisted vision. He always had a contingency plan at the ready. In short, Sidious was a pivotal part of the Skywalker legacy. So it's fitting that his penultimate rise to power and subsequent destruction is a pivotal part of the Skywalker saga's conclusion.
Before I offer my opinion on specific parts of the film, I feel the need to state up front that I'm fully aware this is a fictional story about "space wizards," which is more science fantasy than science fiction. Nonetheless, I do expect scriptwriters and directors to heed the hundreds of established canon sources in the franchise. And more generally, I expect them to introduce plot elements that serve a discernible purpose in advancing the story. With that said, let's jump into the details.
The Dead Speak!
I was surprised to see the film jump right into the return of Darth Sidious. I thought there would be some buildup and a little explanation before we got to it. The opening crawl starts with, "The dead speak" and mentions Emperor Palatine by name. In the very first scene, Kylo and the Knights of Ren are making their way to the Sith Wayfinder that will lead to Sidious' hiding place. And by the second scene, Kylo is on Exegol talking directly to the deposed Emperor.
Sadly, we never get a solid explanation of how he survived (or revived). On Exegol, we see what appears to be some sort of cloning or genetic lab operation. There are also a couple lines from Resistance historian and Sith aficionado, Beaumont Kin (Dominic Monaghan), suggesting it has something to do with Sith rituals and cloning. But it's a far cry from the definitive explanation that many fans wanted.
"Dark science. Cloning. Secrets only the Sith knew." - Beaumont Kin
For reasons that escape me, most of the information about Kin's background and value to the Resistance comes from The Rise of Skywalker: The Visual Dictionary, and a few comics. Within the film, they effectively relegated the character to a random Resistance trooper who has a strange grasp on ancient Sith knowledge. Would it not have been worth 30-60 seconds of screen time to elaborate on the character's role and let him explain how the Emperor might have cheated death?
Why does it matter? Curiosity and closure. Without any explanation of how Sidious was able to cheat death the first time around, who's to say he's not going to show up again in another 30 years? The Emperor wanted Rey to kill him, and despite all the theatrics beforehand, that's exactly what she does. Palpatine's apparent death and the subsequent disappearance of the Sith spirits might have felt like a definitive victory under other circumstances. But since I already watched him "die" once, I feel like I needed a little more.
The Millennium Falcon is being followed by First Order fighters as they're leaving the Sinta Glacier. So Poe Dameron takes advantage of "lightspeed skipping" to evade them. In a film that intentionally delegitimizes the "Holdo Maneuver" from The Last Jedi, it's curious that they would introduce their own continuity-bending hyperspace rules. In this short little sequence, we see the Falcon hyperspace skip into at least three different precarious situations near the surface of a planet. Visually, it's a stunning Star Wars equivalent of a high speed car chase. More practically, this sequence raises a lot of questions.
First, we almost never see a starship hyperspace jumping directly into the atmosphere of a planet. It's been used once before as a one-time, high risk type of maneuver. But Poe does it multiple consecutive times in less than a minute, without any apparent need for pre-calculation. Second, they established in The Last Jedi that starships can only be tracked through hyperspace if there is some sort of special tracking technology employed, which apparently requires use of a capital ship. That's obviously not the case anymore. The Falcon is being chased by what appear to be run-of-the-mill TIE fighters. Which brings me to my third gripe about this scene: have all the TIE fighters been outfitted with hyperdrives now? The supplemental guide, Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Incredible Cross-Sections, states that most First Order TIE fighters are not equipped with hypderdrives. Has so much changed in so little time?
I might be able to dismiss any one of these minor continuity-bending issues on their own. Taken together, however, it's a little too much to ignore. The scene was hardly necessary anyway, except for making a show of the aforementioned space chase visuals. It's almost as if they were overcompensating for the franchise's slowest and most drawn out space chase in The Last Jedi.
Training Under Jedi Master Leia
With all the jungle planet theming, I wouldn't blame you for thinking this was Yavin IV or maybe even Kashyyyk. It's not, though. It's a new jungle planet called Ajan Kloss, where Rey trains under the tutelage of her new Jedi master, Leia.
Personally, I don't take any issue with the way they used the limited footage of Carrie Fisher. Nor do I take any issue with the treatment of her character in this film. The idea that she would train as a Jedi with her twin brother works perfectly well for me, as does the idea that she would abandon that training when she foresaw what was to come. I think this entire segment of her story arc - especially, given the circumstances - is a respectable way to preface the "send off" of Leia (and Carrie) within the franchise.
Kylo's Repaired Helmet
This concept could have been really cool, but I feel like they dropped the ball on the execution. For those that aren't familiar, the look of his repaired helmet is based on Kintsugi, a Japanese method of repairing broken pottery that's also an art form in its own right. Given all the Japanese Samurai elements that inspired Lucas to create Star Wars, it makes a lot of sense to include a reference like this in the film.
The problem with the execution - as you probably noticed on the big screen, along with most of Kylo's executive staff - is that his helmet is not repaired in a fashion that looks like the art form it's echoing. It's a mess, with unaligned pieces and jagged edges. It looks like Kintsugi done by a monkey. And while I'm sure it was meant to be some new alien species, the character repairing his helmet was a literal chimpanzee. Maybe there's an underlying message there, but it's not one I can fully appreciate. The choice to create this poor Kintsugi analog seems arbitrary, and think it would have been better to stick to the spirit of the art form.
The Mysterious Sith Dagger
How is Rey going to figure out that Exegol is the place she'll find the Emperor? She follows Luke's notes. He apparently had an inkling that the Emperor wasn't really dead, and began to look into it with Lando. His notes ultimately lead our heroes to an inscribed dagger, which C3PO can't translate without first getting a droid lobotomy. The gripe I have with this part of the film is how quickly and easily it all goes down. I felt like it was rushed along, only because J.J. needed to cram a bunch of silly plot device elements into a relatively short time span.
I can appreciate the value of having an action scene here to raise the intensity of this proverbial scavenger hunt. But aside from that brief run-in, there were so many trivial elements to this plot device that it felt painfully contrived to me. I do understand that plot devices in fiction are often overly-complicated for storytelling effect. However, they are typically used to show the characters overcome challenges through their wit, strength, skills or personal sacrifice.
Unfortunately, that's not the case with this dagger hunt. Each challenge presented is easily (and almost immediately) beaten, save for C3PO's part. Rey only has to read some notes to figure out they need to head to Pasaana. They don't actually have to search the planet, because Lando comes out of nowhere to give them the location of the ship. They find the remains of the former ship owner because they accidentally fall into the underground tunnels after the chase scene. And the dagger is just laying there, virtually undisturbed by the vexis snakes that have presumably been roaming the tunnels for over a decade.
The first (and only) real challenge for our characters comes when C3PO reads the inscription, but is unable translate it due to some embedded programming safeguards. So off to Kajimi they go, because Poe knows a droidsmith there that can probably bypass the safeguards. This comes at a cost to C3PO, in theory, and they certainly make it a good show of that. But by the end of the movie, C3PO is largely back to his old self, thanks to some backups stored in R2-D2's memory banks. So the one true character impacting element in this time-consuming plot device is largely reversed by the final scene.
Once C3PO has has his metaphorical lobotomy, he tells the team, "The Emperor’s Wayfinder is in the Imperial Vault at Delta 36-transient-936 bearing 3.2 on a moon in the Endor system. From the southern shore, only this blade tells." So our heroes get a location and a cryptic riddle. But once again, it proves to be no real challenge. Although they have lost possession of the dagger at this point, Rey will soon find it in lying on a table Kylo's quarters. How does she wind up in his quarters? Well, getting on to his ship is a simple task, thanks to a "Captain's Chip" that Zorii Bliss gives to Poe. Finding the dagger isn't much of a challenge, either, since it calls to Rey while she's on board.
Eventually, they crash land on Kef Bir, an ocean moon of Endor. As Rey approaches the ocean's southern shore, and looks across at the Death Star remnants, she almost immediately determines that the dagger is a bizarre puzzle piece of sorts (maybe she's seen The Goonies). It's blade is the shape of the wreckage's silhouette, and an arced metal protrusion points right to the throne room. Mind you, this is an ocean moon. The "southern shore" would presumably be a very long shoreline, if there were only one landmass on it. Nonetheless, they approach at just the right spot.
I have to wonder if this dagger was constructed by someone that had extreme foreknowledge of the fate of the Death Star; or if they constructed it after its remains landed on the planet. Even if they built it after the Death Star wreckage landed on Kef Bir, it takes an incredible amount of 'suspension of disbelief' to not question how that wreckage was so perfectly aligned at the exact moment Rey arrived. This ocean is incredibly violent from what we can see, so it's hard to imagine the wreckage went undisturbed for any length of time - let alone three decades. I can chalk it up to Force precognition, I suppose - some sort of Sith soothsayer looking into the future. But then I'm left wondering why this skilled seer didn't tell Sidious that his complicated plan to lure Rey to Exegol would eventually be his undoing.